WASHINGTON — A record 36 percent of U.S. commercial bee colonies have been lost to mysterious causes so far this year and worse may be yet to come, experts told a congressional panel Thursday.
The year's bee colony losses are about twice the usual seen following a typical winter, scientists warn. Despite ambitious new research efforts, the causes remain a mystery.
"We need results," pleaded California beekeeper Steve Godlin. "We need a unified effort by all."
The escalating campaign against what's generically called colony collapse disorder includes more state, federal and private funding for research. Publicity efforts are getting louder — a costumed Mr. Bee was seen wandering around Capitol Hill this week — and lawmakers are becoming mobilized.
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On Thursday, Congress heard from farmers with troubled crops, from beekeepers struggling with lost hives, from frustrated researchers and even from corporate leaders worried about their own economic futures.
Colony collapse disorder is characterized by a sudden decline in a bee colony's population and the inexplicable absence of dead bees. First reported in 2006, the disorder was the chief cause for the 31 percent decline in bee colonies last year.
"What seemed to be an aberration has unfortunately turned into a full-fledged crisis," said Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Calif., chairman of the House horticulture and organic agriculture subcommittee, which convened the hearing.
The hearing is the second of its kind as part of a concerted strategy — elements of which have already borne fruit.
Notably, the five-year farm bill recently approved over President Bush's veto authorizes — but does not guarantee — $20 million in new funding for bee-related studies. Additional bee-related research can also be funded through other accounts, and the legislation requires an Agriculture Department report on the status of ongoing pollinator research. This is the first farm bill to specifically mention the word pollinator.
Private industry is also contributing. Haagen-Dazs, the Oakland-based ice cream company, has recently pledged $250,000 for bee-related research at the University of California at Davis and Pennsylvania State University. This is self-interest in action, as 40 percent of the company's flavors — think Vanilla Swiss Almond or Cherry Vanilla — depend in some fashion on honeybees.
"Pollinators are an essential part of our business," Haagen-Dazs brand manager Katty Pien said.
Also testifying was the president and chief executive officer of Burt's Bees, a cosmetics company based in Durham, N.C., that uses bee materials or bee-pollinated ingredients in nearly all its products, from eye cream to lip balm.
John Replogle set aside his usual workday blue jeans to don a pinstriped suit and a bright yellow, bee-adorned tie to offer lawmakers his thoughts.
"Without the bees, there would be no Burt's Bees," he said.
Next month, the Agriculture Department expects to announce a new $4.1 million, four-year bee research project spanning multiple universities.
So far, Agricultural Research Service Administrator Edward Knipling told the House panel, scientists believe that "various stresses" — such as parasites, pathogens and pesticides — can build up in a bee colony and cause its demise. Some research has specifically identified a particular virus, called the Israeli acute paralysis virus, which is closely associated with colony collapse.
Meanwhile, there isn't enough money to probe all the pollen and bee samples that researchers have collected, said Penn State University senior extension associate Maryann Frazier.
There are some 2,000 samples on shelves waiting to be analyzed by the federal government for $200 a pop, she said.
"The bee research community is quite small," she said. "The research and money has been very minimal. What we need is more manpower to tackle this."
Further illustrating how political pollination works, Pien and bee-friendly representatives hosted a Capitol Hill briefing Wednesday that lured participants with lots of free Vanilla Honey Bee ice cream cups. Dozens of congressional staffers fluttered by for a quick taste. Haagen-Dazs has retained a D.C.-based public relations firm to help make its case, while the American Honey Producers Association paid the lobbying firm Winston and Strawn $860,000 in the last two years, records show.
"Anybody who brings ice cream to the agriculture committee deserves a round of applause," said Rep. Robert W. Goodlatte of Virginia, the ranking Republican on the House Agriculture Committee.